Love Makes the SeeSaws Go Up and Down

by Nancy Bestor

So there I was, sitting on a curb putting a band aid on my sweaty, grimy toe. My feet, although comfortable in my Keen sandals, were tired after many days and many miles of walking the streets of Bangkok. Bob was chilling in the shade next to me, also in Keens. Before I could finish my first aide, a beautifully dressed couple approached, and asked if Bob and I would be willing to pose with them in their wedding pictures. That’s right, Bob and I are sweating in shorts and t-shirts—and don’t forget our Keen sandals—and a stunning couple in full dress and makeup want us to appear in their wedding photos. Without missing a beat, we said yes.

bangkokTheir two professional photographers took at least a dozen shots of the two couples next to each other. He even had us kiss our spouses (or soon to be spouses) for a pose. We didn’t do much talking—as professional models, we took our job seriously—but the wedding couple did ask if we were from America, and told us that they had once been to San Francisco. Before our shoot was finished, we did get a photo on our camera for our memory book too. As we went on our way, the bride and groom thanked us profusely. It’s hard to believe, but they were grateful to have two sweaty Americans in their wedding photos.

And that, in a nutshell is what I love about Thailand. Yes, I love the food—boy do I love the food. And I love its sites, smells and sounds too. But without a doubt, it’s the kind, friendly Thai people that I love most.

We were in Thailand for five days, on a roundabout journey to New Zealand. This being a short visit, we decided to stick to Bangkok, and take our time exploring all its wonders. We booked lodging in an out of the way neighborhood, which required a little extra work to get to and from, but proved to be a highlight of our stay. The Siamotif Hotel is in an old wooden house and is its owner’s original family home. It is located in Thonburi, directly on the Bangkok Noi canal, which is part of the Chao Phraya River. My is the proprietor of this charming nine room hotel, which cost us about $100 per night. Although not cheap by Thai standards, the Siamotif is stunning in looks, service and accommodation, and includes a full and delicious breakfast each morning. It was perfect.bangkok 2But again, the best thing about our hotel was its people. My and her sister Toon (two of seven daughters in the family) treated us as if we were family members ourselves, walking us to the bus stop, telling us to be careful, worrying when I felt unwell one morning, and making certain our experiences in Bangkok were everything we wanted. Staying at the Siamotif required that we take more local transportation to get where we wanted—including ferry boats and local red truck taxi buses— but in our eyes, this only added to its charm. We were all sad to say goodbye to each other when we departed. But this experience was not unique to this Thailand trip. The last time we visited, with our young children, Thai people fawned over them and hotel proprietors were in tears when saying goodbye.

On this trip, at the bustling Chatuchak Market, I fell down. I didn’t see a large crack in the pavement and tripped. Before I could even try to get up by myself, three Thai people were kneeling down beside me, checking to make sure I was okay, and giving me their hands to help me up. Food stall workers were delighted to have foreigners eating at their shops, and enthusiastically helped us try to figure out what they were selling. People riding the local buses pointed and told us where to get off when we were going to a floating market. And Thai children were fascinated with us, smiling, waving, and high-fiving us as we walked by.bangkok 3These are the experiences that we will remember. People being kind and friendly with one another. Because love really does make the world go round.

We Were Never Being Boring

by Nancy Bestor

I don’t think of myself as a boring person, per se. It’s true I usually choose solid colored clothing over wild prints. It’s also true that a comfortable couch and a stack of good books sounds like my idea of a great weekend. But that doesn’t constitute boring. That means sensible and smart. (Am I right?)

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Then Bob and I rented a car on the South Island of New Zealand. When we picked it up, I thought it was a perfect sized, gas conscious vehicle. Sensible and smart, just like me. But then we got on the open roads of the island, and I started to see “fun” car rentals. And once I saw one, I saw thousands. (Sometimes an exaggeration really is needed in a first person travel story.)

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There were vans that looked like the Scooby Doo Mystery Machine, there were Road Runner cars, there were Beastie Boys vans, and more.

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Somehow, we missed the memo about how the cool kids rent cool cars in New Zealand. There was even (ahem) a Bill Cosby car. Someone needs to let that car rental agency know that Bill Cosby is no longer a positive image to portray on a vehicle.

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Yes, my little silver rental car got good gas mileage. And it had plenty of room for our needs. But I couldn’t help but feel like I was missing out on something.

And don’t get me started on the mail boxes. My mailbox in Ashland, Oregon, is one in a stack of simple metal rectangular boxes.

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No more, no less. But we saw mailboxes designed like beer kegs, snow skiis, sharks, and birdhouses, to name just a few. I think it would be way more fun to pick up my bills everyday (because let’s be honest, that’s all I get in the mail anymore) if I could say hello to Snoopy while doing it.

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And finally the bras. Yes, the bras. I won’t go into detail about the style and color of my bras. But, needless to say, they don’t look anything like the bras we saw tied to the fence post in the Cardrona Valley. The Cardrona Bra Fence is, you guessed it, a fence with hundreds of bras hanging from it.

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Legend has it that around the year 2000, four women hung their bras after a very fun evening at the Cardrona Hotel. However it began, it quickly caught on, and women began hanging their bras in solidarity.

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In 2006, authorities removed the bras, saying the fence was “a potential hazard” to drivers, but the bras kept coming back. And they remain today.

I may not be boring, maybe, but let’s just say that New Zealand is wayyyyyy more interesting than me.

Nobody’s Fault But Mine

by Bob Bestor

breathalizer Guilt is a powerful force. So is anxiety. Usually both feelings are pointless and unwarranted. But when you are in a foreign country (New Zealand in this case), and out of sorts from both jet lag and driving on the wrong side of the road, you might be more susceptible to them. Particularly when you are approaching Uniformed Law Enforcement Officers and their sobriety checkpoint roadblock. As pointless as guilt and anxiety may be, they are there. They must be vestiges of my barely-catholic upbringing.

So even though I was stone-cold sober, it was sweaty palms time. I knew I had not been drinking, but my sweaty palms didn’t seem to care. But when it got to be my turn, it was no problem and even quite civil. The police officer simply asked me to count to five into his hand-held breathalyzer. The results were displayed instantly (“no alcohol”) and in my case we were on our way in about thirty seconds with a “Have a nice day.” Even taking photos of the event was no problem. I’d guess it wouldn’t have been quite so civil had I failed.

Fortunately we were already familiar with New Zealand’s sobriety checkpoints. On our first day, while on foot, we had seen a checkpoint at 4pm on a weekday afternoon just outside of downtown Christchurch. We thought it was an odd time and place. But then again, why not? It certainly is a good way to advertise to the general public that the cops are on the lookout. It was also the only time we came upon a checkpoint when we were not 100% sober!

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New Zealand seems to take what they call “drink driving” seriously. In addition to sobriety checkpoints, “Know Your Limit” posters are ubiquitous in bars and restaurants. The poster features two young and hip New Zealanders, a man and a woman, and goes into quite a bit of detail on the effects of various alcoholic drinks and offers a rule of thumb of three drinks over two hours for men and two drinks over two hours for women.

We went through three checkpoints and saw a couple others during our two-week visit to the south island of New Zealand. It was enough to make us switch drivers after our friendly visit to the St. Clair Bowling Club in Dunedin. I was more like “three over one and a half” and although I was our primary driver, we figured it was better to get in trouble with the rental car company than with New Zealand’s finest – and to not deal with the catholic guilt either.

Travel Essentials’ 2016 Travel Photo Contest is Here!

It’s that time of year again! Travel Essentials is currently accepting photo entries for our 16th annual Travel Photo Contest! We love this time of year, finding exciting and beautiful shots from around the world in our inbox every morning. It’s fun for us to see the world through all of your eyes – and we can’t wait to share these wonderful pictures with you in September!

We have some amazing prizes for you this year. Our grand prize is a set of Briggs & Riley Luggage that includes a black 21″ Transcend International Wide-Body Carry-On and a matching black Transcend Rolling Cabin Bag!

We also have an Eagle Creek 90L Rolling Cargo Hauler Duffel for our Runner Up, and a lightweight Osprey Stuff Pack for our five Honorable Mention winners!

Click Here to Read the Rules & See
Winning Photos from Past Contests

2015

Our 2015 Grand Prize Winning Photo, “Sacred Color – Taos Pueblo, New Mexico”, by Eligius Wolodkewitsch of Port Townsend, Washington.

The Special Today was the Eight Piece Box

by Nancy Bestor

There are two constants in my life – music and food. Both of these things were important in my house when I was growing up, and I was fortunate to find a soul mate who believes these two things are just as crucial to being happy and healthy as I do. So when looking for a long-weekend travel destination this spring, we chose a city where food and music are at the top of the list – Austin, Texas.

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Bob’s sister and her husband joined us from Seattle, and picked us up at the airport upon our 10:00 pm arrival. From there it was straight to The Highball, a colorful cocktail bar, and in the blink of an eye we were listening to great music from Texas country singer and guitar player Dale Watson. Dale finished his set just after 11, but the night was young, and so were we. (I feel like an image should be inserted here of us driving in a convertible, with our hair flowing in the wind, but that only exists in my imagination.)

lonestarSo it was on to The Continental Club, the “granddaddy” of Austin music clubs, open since 1955, to hear some Southern Culture on the Skids. Their rockabilly-meets-country-meets-surf sounds featured songs about fried chicken, double-wide trailers, sex, banana pudding, and more. And fortunately, we had stopped at Gordough’s Food Truck for massive donuts before the show, so our appetites were sated. I chose the Miss Shortcake, with cream cheese frosting and fresh strawberries. Bob sampled the Funky Monkey, with grilled bananas, cream cheese and brown sugar, while Philip went with the Fried Clucker, a donut with a fried chicken strip and honey butter on top. You’ve got to see, and eat, these donuts to believe them.

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We rolled up to our airbnb home rental about 2am, tired, but happy. And the next day we did it all over again. We started with an early lunch at Valentina’s food truck, where we all had brisket tacos and smoked corn. Then we wandered South Congress Avenue, home of the above-mentioned Continental Club. It just so happened that this was the weekend of the Lonestar Roundup Classic Car Show, sponsored by The Kontinentals, an Austin car club, named after their honky tonk home base, the Continental Club. Although the show is officially at the Expo Center, hundreds of cars are both parked and motoring up and down the busy street of South Congress. Automobiles newer than 1963 are not allowed at the Roundup, and neither are imported vehicles. The cars were spectacular.

gitdown2We shared 2 ½ pounds of succulent beef ribs in the late afternoon at Black’s Barbecue, then headed over to Slow Poke’s Brisket Shack, home of the Git Down, a hot rod, hot barbecue and hot music event, hosted by the Model Citizens Car Club of Austin. We ambled across a dirt field to get to this outdoor venue, where light bulbs were strung from trees and buildings, chickens wandered throughout the grounds and even more classic cars were on display. It felt like I had walked onto the television set of Friday Night Lights, and I kept looking for Tami Taylor, except it was real. We ate brisket tacos, brought our own beer, and listened to music from The Derailers, the Hickoids and Bobby Mack. But our night wasn’t over yet. (Can you believe it kids? We stayed out past midnight AGAIN!)

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We soon found ourselves at another classic Austin music venue, Donn’s Depot, a bar and nightclub housed in an old Missouri-Pacific train depot. Repurposed rail cars serve as seating areas, and the women’s bathroom is a real caboose. Frank Cavitt, the Honky-Tonk Piano Man, was on the bill, and as Merle Haggard had died just a few days earlier, Frank and his band paid tribute with several of Merle’s songs, and I danced the two-step with stepped on the toes of a couple of young Texas boys. There was lots of great music played at Donn’s that night, and, like everywhere else we had been in Austin, people went out of their way to be friendly.

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We couldn’t get enough of Dale Watson, so Saturday afternoon found us at yet another Dale Watson show. Dale and his band, the Lonestars, were playing the grand opening of a Cube Smart Storage facility. We (obviously) weren’t in the market for a storage unit, but they welcomed us anyway, and we drank margaritas and ate pecan pie while Dale and the boys put on a fabulous show. Then it was back to the Continental Club for a late afternoon show by Redd Volkaert, former guitar player for Merle Haggard. And guess what? His show was outstanding.

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And the hits just kept on coming. That evening we drove about an hour out of town to Kendalia Halle, built in 1903, for a real Texas dance hall experience. Billy Mata and the Texas Tradition played western swing, and we watched dozens of couples, most quite a bit older than us, waltz and two-step as if they were floating above the floor. Bob was the only man in shorts, and when he and I got out on the dance floor, I couldn’t tell if they were looking at his bare legs or our feet because we had no idea what we were doing. The setting was again magical and movie-like. And yet, once again, it was real.

bathroomWe had one more dance hall experience on Sunday morning, the Gospel Brunch at Gruene Hall, the oldest dance hall in Texas. Built in 1878, the 6,000 square foot wooden-floor dance hall has a tin roof and side flaps for open air dancing. Once a month the Hall features a “New Orleans-style Gospel Brunch with a Texas Twist.” For $30, you can eat all you like of oven roasted turkey, seasoned roast beef, polish sausage, scrambled eggs with salsa verde, buttermilk biscuits, garlic mashed potatoes, fried apples and more. The brunch is led by country performer Bret Graham and also features the Gospel Silvertones, a rockin’ gospel group. Both the music and the food were excellent.

And that one sentence really sums up our trip. Austin, Texas—where the music and the food are excellent.

 

 

You’re As Cold As Ice

by Nancy Bestor

IMG_3710You might think that shave ice and snow cones are the same thing. You’d be wrong though. Very wrong. Yes, they are both sweet treats. Yes, they are both made of ice. And yes, they are both drizzled with flavored syrup. But any Hawaiian will tell you that a snow cone is definitely not the same thing as shave ice. And having sampled both several times, I absolutely agree.

Amazingly, we didn’t know about shave ice on our first trip to Hawaii, in 2001. Eight days on Maui wasted. But on subsequent visits to the islands, friends and customers encouraged us to try this Hawaiian delicacy. And boy, are we glad we did. Shave ice is just what it sounds like—ice, shaved by a special machine into a fluffy, fine, and powdery consistency that is then enhanced by a wide assortment of sweet flavored syrups that are drizzled on top. If you’re really living large, you can get it served over a scoop of ice cream, and/or have sweetened condensed milk poured over the top (a snow cap). There are lots of shave ice stands throughout the Hawaiian Islands and the most popular spots often have significant lines at shave ice rush hour.

Shave ice actually traces its history to Japan, where in the very early days (1185 A.D.) ice was a delicacy. It was hauled down from the mountains in the winter and stored in caves. Since ice was rare, shave ice was quite the luxury and thus was reserved for royalty. When Japanese plantation workers immigrated to Hawaii, they brought this traditional dessert with them.

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I’m not a huge fan of the snow cone. Inevitably, it gets crunchy, and the flavored syrup is always gone long before the “snow,” leaving you with a pile of tasteless ice. Not so with shave ice. The super-fine shavings allow it to maintain its fresh, powdery-snow consistency, and also allow the delicious syrup flavorings to deeply penetrate and seemingly become a part of the ice.

We’ve tried shave ice at many different spots in Hawaii, and our favorite (and the favorite of Yelp and Trip Advisor reviewers as well) is Ululani’s. With several locations on Maui, Ululani’s shave ice is delicious, the service is great, and the flavor choices are plenty. Jo Jo’s on Kauai is also a top spot and highly rated by The Ultimate Kauai Guidebook.

And just so we’re clear, it is “shave ice.” It is not “shaved ice.” I don’t know why, but if you don’t want to sound like a tourist, please leave off the D.

 

Tired of Waiting for You

by Nancy Bestor

It’s just about summertime, people. The weather is warming up, sweaters are going back into storage, and more people are traveling. Oh, and one more thing, TSA lines are getting a lot longer. TSA security checkpoints have been all over the news lately, with reports of three hour wait times and scores of passengers missing flights due to long security lines. And TSA chief Peter Neffenger says it’s not going to get better anytime soon.

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I have mixed feelings about long TSA security lines. The purpose of the TSA is to keep airline passengers safe. So my first thought is, if lines have to be long for the TSA to do their jobs, then so be it. The TSA chief said that one of the reasons lines are longer is that the TSA is no longer randomly selecting travelers to go through the TSA Pre-Check lines. Rather, you have to be a member of the Pre-Check program. This seems fair, as again, it is really all about security, and “randomly” selecting people for less screening doesn’t seem very secure to me.

But then I’m at the Los Angeles Airport, in the international terminal, where there is no TSA Pre-Check line (this bears repeating—there is no TSA Pre-Check line in the international terminal of LAX). There is, however, a very long line for all passengers to wait their turn to be screened. While waiting, I see two TSA security stations open, and at least four stations closed. What is wrong with this picture? Can the TSA not hire enough employees to man the appropriate number of security stations at the airport during peak travel hours? Apparently, they cannot.

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97 million more passengers are expected to pass through TSA security this year than they did three years ago. And the TSA chief says that adding several hundred new screeners won’t be enough to make the lines evaporate. Maybe this is naive thinking on my part, but perhaps he should think about adding several thousand new screeners?

I can complain all I want, but the truth is (and this will come as a surprise to no one), I can’t fix the TSA. The only thing I can do is try to avoid long TSA lines that might make me late for my flight. My suggestions include getting to the airport extra early if you’re flying out of a major hub, Chicago, New York’s JFK, San Francisco, Los Angeles, etc, during peak travel hours. And if you’re a frequent flyer, I’d recommend checking out the TSA Pre-Check or Global Entry Programs. You can’t immediately qualify for either of these programs, but I think it’s going to take a while before these lines get better (if they get better at all), and beginning the Pre-Check program sign-up process is better than doing nothing at all. My last bit of advice (note to self)—breathe.